Five Things We Learned from the Ravens' 34-17 win over the Oakland Raiders

From the Ravens' delayed fury on the ground to Terrell Suggs' spotty impact, here are five things we learned from a 34-17 win over the Oakland Raiders on Sunday.

The Ravens have a fearsome running attack with Lamar Jackson, so why did they wait to unleash it?

The Ravens came out running to start the second half, much as they did in victory the previous week against the Cincinnati Bengals. A lousy Oakland defense offered no answer as Jackson and running back Gus Edwards rambled 75 yards over almost seven minutes. The Ravens piled on another clock-eating, run-dominated touchdown drive later in the half.

Which raised the question: Why did they wait so long?

Ravens coach John Harbaugh began the week with a spirited endorsement of Jackson’s throwing ability, and the Ravens seemed determined to prove his point in the first half, when they passed 18 times and ran 10.

Jackson made some excellent throws. He stepped up and hit a wide-open Mark Andrews in stride for a 74-yard gain in the second quarter. He had promised all week that he could and would throw downfield, and he flashed a satisfied grin as he ran to the line for the next down.

There was no grand plan to go aerial in the first half, Jackson said. “We’re just taking what the defense gives us.”

But at times, he seemed paralyzed by an internal debate between running and passing.

On an early sack, he did not see an open tight end over the middle but refused to take off when he had a Raiders defender one-on-one in space.

On other plays, Jackson passed up obvious running opportunities, perhaps overreacting to the questions he’d faced about carrying 26 times in his first start.

He threw an interception in the second quarter when he tried to thread a pass through four defenders to wide receiver John Brown.

Harbaugh acknowledged that Jackson’s running ability gives him an “added layer” of possibilities to contemplate on each play.

“But if anyone can handle it, he can,” Harbaugh said.

Such moments of indecision are to be expected from a rookie quarterback. And the Ravens need to build Jackson’s confidence as a passer. It just seemed like they could have made their lives easier by unleashing their running attack in the first half.

Matthew Judon reminded us what the Ravens have been missing on defense.

The Ravens came into Week 12 with the best total and scoring defense in the NFL, so it’s not as if coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale’s unit was struggling.

But the Ravens have been operating with a thin margin for error, relying on stout line play and tight man-to-man coverage rather than game-altering sacks or turnovers.

That continued to be the story for most of the afternoon against the Raiders, as the defense overcame a flat start to hold Oakland quarterback Derek Carr to a 16-for-34 performance.

They did not put the game away until the fourth quarter, when Judon crashed through the Oakland line to strip Carr and set up a Terrell Suggs touchdown return.

Judon’s play, which he followed up with two more sacks on the next possession, would have stood out regardless. But it came as a particular relief, because the Ravens haven’t made any others like it over the past six weeks. They had not recorded a takeaway since their Week 7 loss to the New Orleans Saints and had sacked opposing quarterbacks just three times in their previous four games.

“It’s just the way the games are going right now,” safety Eric Weddle said. “When the turnovers do happen, it’s going to take us to the next level. But it is a thin line. We can’t go out there and just muddle around and think we’re going to turn it up when we have to.”

Judon has boosted his play since the first quarter of the season, so perhaps he can become a catalyst. The Ravens will need more plays like his strip sack if they’re to handle the offenses that await them in December.

Terrell Suggs scored a defensive touchdown, but he’s gone long stretches without making an impact this season.

Everyone at M&T Bank Stadium, except the Raiders, enjoyed watching Suggs huff and puff his way to the third touchdown of his career.

But that moment of opportunism obscured another game in which the veteran linebacker struggled to mark the box score. Suggs went without a sack for the fourth straight game and has made just three unassisted tackles in that span. He used to draw automatic double teams. Now, opponents often block him with one lineman, though the Raiders did chip him at times Sunday.

After one play in which he chased Carr across the field, Suggs checked out and took a knee on the sideline for several minutes. It wasn’t clear whether he was hurt or gassed.

But it reminded us that, at age 36, the 2011 Defensive Player of the Year can no longer influence a game on every down.

Suggs said he’s not worried about fatigue as the stretch run looms.

“Not really,” he said. “They did a good job of that for me before the bye, having me and Za’Darius [Smith] switch, just so down the back nine, we have all our guys healthy. This is the time to floor it, so to say.”

It’s not as if Suggs has become a non-entity, one season after he made the Pro Bowl in 2017. But whether you look at his raw numbers or his grades on Pro Football Focus, he’s a solid player more than a game-wrecker.

Suggs is a free agent after this season and has given every indication he intends to play in 2019. With the Ravens headed for some degree of rebuild, however, will they want to devote even a modest chunk of their salary cap to a 36-year-old pass rusher?

Or will Suggs end up like his friends, Ed Reed and Haloti Ngata — a cornerstone Raven playing out the string in another city?

With Alex Collins out, the Ravens finally found a significant role for Ty Montgomery.

It’s startling how quickly the team’s running back picture has flipped in the age of Jackson. Edwards continued to be the headliner, barreling to 118 yards in his first career start.

But with Collins out because of a foot injury and Buck Allen playing a diminished role, the Ravens also leaned on Montgomery for the first time since they acquired him from the Green Bay Packers.

He provided an effective alternative to Edwards’ power with his shiftier running style (eight carries for 51 yards) and receiving ability (three catches for 13 yards).

The performance was a meaningful step forward for a player who seemed in danger of becoming an afterthought.

With Kenneth Dixon also in the mix, the Ravens’ backfield could become overcrowded in a hurry. That’s the reality of the modern NFL, where star runners are scarce.

But every team needs a player with Montgomery’s skill set, and he reminded the Ravens of that at an opportune time.

No one wanted to talk about it Sunday, but the Ravens are about to face a season-defining decision at quarterback.

“I’m not going to get into that for a number of reasons,” Harbaugh said.

“That’s up to coach,” Jackson said.

“We just got done beating the Raiders, so I’m deflecting that one,” guard Marshal Yanda chimed in.

But with Joe Flacco nearing his expected return from a right hip injury suffered in Week 9, the Ravens face the question fans and analysts have anticipated all season.

Do they ride the horse that brought them most of the way? Or is the future now? Will Flacco retake the huddle for an essential road game against the Atlanta Falcons? Or will the Ravens bet on Jackson’s younger, hotter hand?

For all Jackson’s imperfections, he has made a solid case to take the job, moving the offense consistently and controlling the clock in two victories.

A skeptic, however, could note that the rookie has done it against two of the worst defenses in the NFL. The Ravens won more convincingly with Flacco slinging the ball from the pocket early in the season.

The ideal scenario would feature Flacco starting and Jackson coming in to run an entirely different offense for whole series. But that’s a lot to ask of a coaching staff that has its hands full crafting one game plan each week. And it’s a lot to ask of Flacco, who doesn’t like leaving the field.

If Flacco is close to fully healthy, the guess here is he’ll start. That said, the Ravens cannot holster Jackson for all but five or six plays a game. They’d do opposing defenses a kindness if they squandered him to that degree.

Harbaugh probably won’t tip his hand until the weekend, in part to keep the Atlanta coaching staff guessing.

But make no mistake, Flacco vs. Jackson is the story of the week and the remainder of the season.

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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